I remember the first time I heard about endorphins. It was explained as that “happy rush” you get after a run.
Fast forward to graduate school where I became fascinated with the interaction of brain chemicals in our systems. That’s because they have everything to do with how we feel.
The feelings we experience are the result of chemical reactions taking place inside our bodies, according to research cited in psychology textbooks and on the website www.mdadvice.com. Each and every emotion we feel occurs as a result of these chemical releases from the brain.
The four happy hormones
While there are a number of brain chemicals that interact in our systems, there are four that are generally known as the “happy hormones”:
- Endorphins — the body’s natural pain killers
- Serotonin — the mood stabilizer
- Dopamine — the reward chemical
- Oxytocin — the love hormone
Let’s dig a little deeper. Research from Dr. Cathy Malchiodi, a psychologist, art therapist and author, suggests activities to increase the likelihood of happy hormone releases. And the website www.joyfuldays.com provides tips on how to engage more of these hormones/neurotransmitters in our systems.
Endorphins reduce anxiety and sensitivity to pain, thereby helping us to feel better.
Ways to increase endorphins: Exercise vigorously, watch a comedy, use essential oils and eat dark chocolate. Eating spicy foods could also help. Receptors on our tongues react to spicy foods by sending signals to our brains similar to pain signals. This triggers the production of endorphins.
Serotonin boosts our mood and makes us more agreeable and sociable. Lack of it can cause irritability and depression. Much of it is produced in our gut. (This is why you can get “hangry.”)
Ways to increase serotonin: sun exposure, walking in nature, swimming, cycling, running, meditating, mindfulness and thinking positive thoughts.
Note the multiple references to being outdoors. When sunlight reaches our skin, we produce vitamin D. In turn, this helps produce serotonin. That’s why being outside can help us to feel happier. Serotonin also lingers in our systems after exercise.
Dopamine is a “pleasure” hormone and is stimulated when we strive toward a goal. It motivates us to take action to achieve a goal so we can experience the pleasure of the reward. Dopamine helps us to feel mentally alert. The lack of it may result in shorter attention spans, decreased concentration and bad moods.
Ways to increase dopamine: Set daily or monthly goals. Having specific, measurable and achievable goals gives us something to strive toward, thereby stimulating dopamine production. Complete a task. Participate in sporting events, creative activities or productive work. Do self-care activities and celebrate little wins. A purposeful life can help you to feel happier.
Exercise with an objective. Dopamine levels tend to rise together with serotonin when we exercise. Since dopamine is associated with goal achievement, setting a distance or time target can stimulate its production.
Oxytocin is the love and bonding hormone, released through physical contact. Oxytocin produces feelings of love and trust, which is why relationships can boost our happiness.
Ways to increase oxytocin: Play with a dog, cat or baby. Cuddle with a significant other, child or fur baby. Hold hands and give compliments. Breastfeeding, intercourse and childbirth all release a tremendous amount of oxytocin. A massage can also release oxytocin into our systems as a result of the prolonged physical contact.
Happy hormones can help to ease your pain and help you feel better, although they’re not a long-term fix. For example, if you had a fight with your best friend, the release of happiness hormones may help you feel good for a period of time, thereby releasing you from the pain of conflict. You’ll still need to resolve your issues, though, and you run the risk of having bad feelings return until you do so.
So, if the hormones won’t help you feel good for prolonged periods of time, why is it helpful to learn how to engage with them? Simply because they can ease your pain and help you to feel better until you can deal with your problems. They could likely help you to have a more level head and heart as well, as you approach solutions.
Too much of a good thing
It’s good to realize it wouldn’t be healthy to overdo the engagement with happy hormones. And that’s further rationale for appreciating their shorter-term value.
For example, endorphins mask pain, which is useful in a temporary sense. If pain were masked all the time, though, we could end up seriously injuring ourselves by pushing our bodies too hard. Similarly, too much dopamine could make us strive toward every goal — with no ability to prioritize them.
Oxytocin is wonderful for building trusting relationships. If we trusted everyone, however, we could fall for every scam on the planet!
Happiness: A state of mind — and body
So, appreciate these happy hormones when they occur. You may even want to try some of the techniques mentioned above to increase the potential of having more of them released into your system.
It’s nice to know we can affect our own happiness through our minds — as well as our bodies!